Norway, as the song goes (or a lovely version here with English lyrics further down on the page), is a small country, but it is beautiful and has some fascinating resources. While wool has historically not been prioritized in breeding programs—primary income for the farmers comes from meat, dairy, pelts, or subsidy benefits—it does have fleece. There are, of course, a number of imported breeds such as Suffolk, Cheviot, Blackface, Texel, and even an attempt at a Merino among others, but there are some heritage breeds which are worth recognizing. There is also a bit of confusion about them, partly because—let’s face it—Norwegian is not precisely a widely spoken language, and most folks who are gathering information have to weed through the texts to find what they’re looking for, or else find someone who can translate. Nor does it help that at least three of the breeds have very similar names.
In line with this confusion, Norwegian wools sold outside the country are often not correctly labeled. For instance, as of the time of this writing, World of Wool carries “Norwegian wool” and describes it as one of the oldest breeds, but the product is a blend of Norwegian wools and not any one particular breed. (And before you fuss at me for outing the shop’s inaccuracy, I have indeed already communicated with them and their response was that “it’s all Norwegian wool.”) I’ve seen similar things happening in other descriptions, such as top or roving sold as “Norwegian longwool” but which is inaccurately described because of a Norwegian misunderstanding about the phrase “longwool.” That phrase has been picked up by one of the primary mills with the assumption that it is literal and just means that the staple is long; the fleece is a year’s clip rather than a half-year’s growth. They don’t understand that in English, “longwool” is a class or category rather than a describer, hence the confusion. There is only one Norwegian longwool—the Norsk Pelssau—and that fleece is grey. Thus, if you ever receive something labeled as “Norwegian longwool” and it is something other than grey, silky, and lustrous, you know you have a fiber which is a year’s clip of a different breed or, more likely, a mix of breeds (e.g., Norsk Kvit, Dala, and other crossbred types).
I have to admit that I find these kinds of slips a little frustrating, because they tend to be spread further. After all, the majority of folks simply don’t know, and wading through Norwegian when you don’t speak the language can be a challenge. But, I’ve been working on establishing a stable of shepherds for some of these breeds, and creating awareness within the farming community in general that yes, their wool is in fact worth something. What follows, then, is a quick overview of the Norwegian breeds just to help provide some basic information. I’ve noted the breeds for which I do have shepherds I can call upon, and those individuals have also been listed in the “Shepherds and Shops” page. I’ll keep the list updated as I gather them.
Think of this as your Norwegian Sheep Breeds 101. 🙂 I’ll update the page at intervals.
Starting with the oldest and the group which causes the most confusion, there are three distinct spæl (dual-coated, short-tailed) breeds of sheep, each with its own breed association and standards.
1. Gammelnorsk sau
This breed is also known as villsau, ursau, and utegående sau among other terms. In English, that translates loosely to wild sheep, prehistoric/ancient sheep, and “sheep that are always outside”; there’s no good translation for that last term, I’m afraid. This is the oldest of all the breeds, and the one which was used for the Viking sails. It is also the smallest of the breeds; an average skirted fleece is about 1kg or slightly over. There are somewhere around 20,000 breeding ewes, and the breed is fairly heavily subsidized by the government.
2. Gammelnorsk Spælsau (GNS)
This breed looks very much like the Gammelnorsk sau, but is larger and has a slightly different coat. It is the next-oldest breed in the country, and very very old. There are somewhere around 600-800 breeding ewes. The average skirted adult fleece weight here is about 1.5kg.
This is the modern breed, and one of the breeds I’m still working on obtaining. Its fleece will be closer to the GNS, but I expect it to be slightly different in the same way that the Gammelnorsk sau is different from the Gammelnorsk Spælsau. A full thirteen percent of the country’s sheep population is registered as being this breed, so figure about 300,000, if my math is correct.
A word about the spæls.
It’s easy to conflate these three breeds, in part because the names are so similar; Gammelnorsk sau, Gammelnorsk Spælsau, and Spælsau. It doesn’t help that they all look a bit alike, have the same massive variations in colors and patterns, and the fleece type is also similar. But they are three different and distinct breeds, each with their own governing association and each breed with its own characteristics and personalities. Of the three, the Gammelnorsk is reputed to be the most independent and hardy, as befits its heritage. The sheep are typically left out year round, and they’re good foragers. They have a reputation for having solid survival instincts, and for not needing help lambing. The GNS comes next, of course, and the Spælsau should be considered a modern breed.
I’m afraid I’m not at the point where I could clearly identify one from the other, and I rather fear that holds true for many others. As a result, there has been some intermingling of the three, although there are attempts to hold the lines pure and the registries consistent. But sometimes one is dependent on small signs. For instance, one lovely shepherd told me that the Gammelnorsk sau should not have a forelock. If it has that crop of curls on its forehead, it’s a good indication that there was a crossing with one of the other spæl breeds—probably the GNS—at some point in its heritage.
4. Grå Trøndersau
After these breeds, then we have a breed to the Trøndelag district, the Grå Trøndersau, which is based on an ancient and extinct grey sheep which no one knows a name for or tatersau, and presumably influenced by imported Spanish Merino from about the 1700s. This is the finest (micron) of all Norwegian breeds, but as is true of most of the others, it varies hugely between flocks and is still a medium wool.
There are about 400-600 breeding ewes. Its base color is grey, but there may be massive variation in the grey within a fleece. Part of the difficulty here is that there was an outcrossing at one point, presumably to improve meat aspects, with the Spælsau-type breeds, and as a result, a discouragingly large percentage of the breed exhibits either a double coat or evidence of a rise. Neither of those qualities should exist in this breed, and the breed organization is now trying to remedy that fault and return the fiber to what it was before the spæl influence. As a result, the fiber varies hugely depending on the breeding program, but it’s an odd likeness to a sort of cross between Romney and single-coat Shetland, or Finn, or something I can’t quite nail down. A lamb fleece I handled recently would have been classed similarly to a medium adult Merino, while an adult fleece in that same flock was strongly reminiscent of a medium and low-luster Romney.
5. Norsk Pelssau (note the double “s”)
The Norsk Pelssau is Norway’s only longwool. It is always grey albeit in varying shades, with color nuances and variations in the spectrum. It’s based in the Gotland breed, but was blended with Spælsau many years ago, which means it tends to be a bit finer and have more luster than Gotland. It behaves like a usual longwool and makes a lovely albeit slightly hairy lace. There are about 2000 of them, and the average skirted fleece weight here seems to be about 1.5kg. However, the breed is, as the name indicates, primarily used for pelts (pelt-sheep) and meat, and is typically sheared twice a year with an average staple ranging around 3-4″ as opposed to the very long English longwool-type locks one might expect.
6. Norwegian White
This one is the most dominant of all the breeds. It’s a multipurpose breed with a medium wool, about the same as a coarser Corrie. It comprises about 69% of the breeding ewe population, and Dala—which looks like it and which only comprises 6% of the ewes—is very similar. NSG (the governing organization for sheep and goats in Norway) reckons that a fair percentage of the Dala are actually Norwegian White. I’m still working on this one.
7. Rygja and 8. Steigar
There are also two other local breeds from another part of the country and which I’d like to get my hands on: Rygja and Steigar. There are about as many of these two as the Norsk Pelssau and both breeds are local to their origin (e.g., the Steigar comes from Steigen in Nordland, and the Rygja from Rogaland).
Norsk Sau og Geit (the Norwegian Sheep and Goat association): http://nsg.no
Breed association for the Gammelnorsk Spælsau: http://www.gammalnorskspelsau.org/
Breed association for the Gammelnorsk sau: http://www.villsau.no/
Breed association for the Grå Trøndersau: http://www.trondersau.no/
Breed association webpage for the Norsk Pelssau is hosted on the NSG’s site.
Norsk Pelssau: Bente Wangensteen at pelssau.no
Gammelnorsk Spælsau: Anne Lise Sandnes (also chair of the breed association)
Grå Trøndersau: I’m in contact with two shepherds for this breed, and each carries a different type of fleece. The finer (micron) seems to be with Berit Andresen (contact info coming). Berit can also supply Gammelnorsk sau. Marit Lianes (info coming) can also supply fleeces typical for the breed, but her flock includes a percentage which demonstrate the spæl influence and thus can be fascinating to work with. I feel comfortable recommending both.
as of 2 Sep 2014